Have we really left the Industrial Revolution?

For the past few decades, the cubicle has served as the symbol of modern workforce.

A century ago, the “modern” workforce looked like this.

These two pictures represent the shift in our society from an mechanical workforce to a knowledge workforce. Instead of working with steam engines and factories to produce physical products, most workers now on laptops and computers to produce products based on our knowledge.

This shift from physical labor to mental labor was made possible because of technology.

Yet, as the book “The Human Workplace:People-Centered Organizational Development” points out, many of our “modern” workplace policies are still stuck in the mindset of the past.

This isn’t good.

Businesses that stay stuck in the past lose customers and eventually their business. You can’t run a modern business with Industrial Revolution-style tactics. It just don’t work.

The problem is that most businesses don’t know how to NOT stay stuck in the past.

Most businesses know they need to innovate, but they don’t know HOW. It’s one thing to create a social media or mobile-friendly website. It’s a totally different thing to create an innovative work culture that can leverage new technology in a constantly changing world.

Our “Modern” Attempts to Fix Workplace Culture: Be More Like a Startup?

To be fair, many businesses have tried to adapt the workplace. There have been several movements that focused on improving the workplace, in light of technology and the other changes affecting society. These changes include:

Yes, beer. We’ve tried to use free beer to keep our employees happy and productive.

These things can help a business, but they won’t fix it. If your business still can’t get that new project because your team managers don’t like each other, a Foosball table won’t help. If you business offers unlimited vacations, but everyone is afraid to take a vacation because they’ll get fired, something isn’t right.

Most businesses, however, have the opposite view.

The Truth: Many Businesses Remain Stuck in the Industrial Revolution Mindset

As our world (and workforce) transitions into the future, many businesses still hold onto the “control mindset” of the past, particularly the Industrial Revolution.

These businesses are still trying to micromanage their employees’ time and squeeze all of the production they can out of their employees while paying them as little as possible to keep them there. They are trying to limit innovation and feedback, rather than spark it. They wait until the last minute to make critical decisions..

We don’t live in a world where the above practices are successful anymore.

Companies that hold onto the past often have

  • Silos
  • Outdated hiring practices
  • Policies that overly restrict and control employees’ time
  • Overly complex and outdated employee manuals and policies
  • Disengaged workers (possibly up to 70%)

The above practices won’t work in a world with business competition could literally come from anywhere in the world. It won’t work in a world with self-driving cars, freelancers, Generation Y and Z, Big Data, and microchips. In this kind of world, change comes from everywhere and anywhere. (Just look at politics!). You can’t control it. You have to manage it.

If your business wants to survive the upcoming world of work, you’ll need to adapt your workplace for a future that you can’t prepare for. Your business needs a workplace that can quickly find and leverage opportunities (technology, labor, etc.) on a continual basis, so you can stay ahead (not behind) of the learning curve.

That process only happens when you have a fully engaged workforce.

The Human Workplace: The Golden Key to Unpredictable Future is Humans

This focus on humans, not technology, as the key to innovation is the defining viewpoint of the book referenced above, “The Human Workplace: People-Centered Organizational Development“. Unlike most “innovation” books which focus on topics such as digital transformation, design thinking, and automation, “The Human Workplace” argues that business owners need to focus on the humans in the workplace in order to maximize the potential of their technology.

Andy Swann argues strongly in his book that innovation needs to start with people first, not technology. People, not technology, are what make a business what it is. Not job titles. Not your website. Not your policy manual. Not your state-of-the-art robot.


Without people, there is no business.

“The Human Workplace” focuses on ways for businesses to break up with the “Industrial Revolution” mindset and into a more agile workforce that is capable of leveraging opportunities in an unpredictable workforce. The book throws quite a few revolutionary ideas out there (from “Minimum Viable Organization” to “club houses”), but there are a few quick ideas you can start adopting (or at least think about changing) in your workplace.

Let’s look at 5 of them.

From Industrial to Digital: 5 Workplace Practices Your Business Might Need to Drop Today for the Future of Work

  1. Forgetting who your customers are (Hint: It’s everyone!)

    A big point that Andy Swann makes in the first part of “The Human Workplace” is the sharp distinction businesses make their customers and employees. Businesses, who are trying to make a profit, focus on their customers first. (Remember “The customer is always right”?). Andy argues against this concept. By focusing on the customer first, you are not prioritizing the employees who have the most contact (and most influence) with the customer. 

    Key Point #1: Realize that customers can become employees, so always be on the lookout for talent. Also realize that your employees are customers of your workplace, so always be on the lookout for ways to optimize your employee’s experience.

  2. Not getting constant feedback

    Businesses cannot live in a bubble and survive. There is too much data and information being exchanged around them, from social media updates to customer clicks on your website. Businesses need to get in the habit of getting constant feedback so they can adjust their business strategies and actions before it’s too late. Businesses also need to get in the habit of getting feedback from the top, bottom, and sides of their organizational chart.

    Key Point #2: If you can, break up with the annual review. Get and share constant feedback . Start listening to your frontline and top-of-the-pyramid employees as well as everyone else. Understand what’s going on with your business before it is too late.You don’t need to hear from everyone at once. You just need to create an environment where people are free and open to share feedback.

  3. Hiring a job description, not a role

    One big gripe “The Human Workplace” has with the modern workforce is the hiring process. Andy Swann bemoans the fact that many businesses are still hiring people just to “fill a position” so they can meet production. To do that, companies often hire people that match as closely as possible to a job description. While that makes logical sense, it doesn’t make sense, if your business needs to evolve (which it will) in the future. If you’re hiring for a job description only, you may not get help with the role you signed that employee up for.

    Key Point #3: Look for people to fill your jobs, not job descriptions . People can grow and evolve in ways that a job description can’t.

  4. Focusing too much on rules, not principles

    Businesses spend a lot of time, unnecessary meetings, and paperwork (either print or digital) on rules and policies. There’s a good reason behind all of it. Businesses want to limit risk, protect themselves and their employees, and create a predictable environment. The problem? The future is unpredictable. Who could have predicted Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Slack, Dropbox, and all of the other technologies that will continue to change our world? Because of that, Andy Schwann urges leaders to stop trying to create fixed rules for every little detail in the workplace. Instead, he argues, focus on the principles behind those rules. By focusing on the principles, you can adapt to whatever technology (or other issue) comes your way.

    Key Point #4: Understand the limits of an employee manual or complicated policies. The future will keep changing faster than manuals and policies, so start focusing on principles before it’s too late.

  5. Keeping a fixed mindset when it comes to technology, instead of being flexible

    Businesses like predictability. We like to know that the same computer we invest in will be useful in the next few years. We like to know that our website will bring in customers now, and in the next few years to come. What businesses don’t like is unpredictability. Businesses don’t like wondering whether their outdated website is the reason for lost sales or don’t like missing out on a potential source of sales because everyone is on a new social media channel. There’s just one tiny issue. The future will constantly keep throwing up unexpected kinds of change your way. Remain focused on one type of technology and risk losing out to others.

Key Point #5. The future is change. Instead of focusing on the product in the future of work, focus on the process of                   how you actually use technology. Be open to trying new forms of technology and using them whenever they are helpful.

The Conclusion: The Future is Change, Change With People First, Then Technology

As mentioned several times above, the future is and will remain unpredictable. A key point of survival for your business is not the technology, but the people you work with to use that technology. Most “innovation” talk focuses on the fancy new gadgets o trendy HR fad that your business should follow in order to be “innovative”.

The truth is, none of this “innovation” business stuff will work if you don’t have a workplace that unlocks you people power.

Without technology, there is no innovation.

Without people, there is no business.

We don’t live in a world where work is predictable and orderly anymore (aka Industrial Revolution). We live in a world where  unpredictability is the only predictability (aka digital revolution).

Shouldn’t your workplace reflect that shift if it wants to survive?

Focus first on your people, then you can leverage whatever unpredictability your business encounters.